Tuesday, December 30, 2014

"…that revolution period": Keith Jarrett's anti-purism, 1967–’72

"We were in the midst of that revolution period, and I felt that we were defying the norms of the time. That means in all ways… If we wanted to swing, we could. If we didn’t, we didn’t. If the overall context demanded both, we could do that."—Keith Jarrett on his late-’60s/early-’70s trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, from a 2008 interview with Ted Panken


 "It seemed to me with Keith it was more fun in a way. It was so open and so free that you could almost do whatever you wanted. It was almost like you didn't even care whether the audience was there or not, or whether they liked it or whether they didn't. It was quite different with Bill [Evans]… I think that was the influence of the times too, you know? I mean, playing with Bill there wasn't much rock and roll around, really. But playing with Keith, that was a whole different thing."—Paul Motian, from a 1996 interview with Chuck Braman


I briefly mentioned the recent ECM archival release Hamburg ’72, a live recording of Keith Jarrett's trio with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, in my 2014 jazz round-up. Since compiling that list, I've fallen down the rabbit hole with this album, and with the Jarrett/Haden/Motian records that led up to it: a series of LPs under Jarrett's name starting with 1967's Life Between the Exit Signs and including 1968's Somewhere Before, a trio of albums culled from various 1971 sessions—El Juicio (The Judgement), Birth and The Mourning of a Star, the first two of which feature Dewey Redman—and 1972's Expectations, a double album recorded before Hamburg ’72, but released after. The pre- and early history of Jarrett's great American Quartet, in other words.

This body of work fascinates me for a couple reasons.

1) You don't hear about it a lot. During the past few years, the American Quartet itself seems to have really gotten its due from Ethan Iverson and others—Iverson's interview with Jarrett, where the latter calls the Redman/Haden/Motian quartet "this absolutely raw commodity," is required reading for anyone interested in this band—but most of that praise tends to center on the group's later recordings, from 1973's Fort Yawuh on. For one thing, until recently, I didn't realize that the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio had laid such extensive groundwork for the better-known quartet. (Just to make it clear, the Redman-less Hamburg ’72 dates from after Redman was already working with the band, at least on record; I'm not sure whether Dewey had played live with Jarrett by the summer of ’72 and just couldn't make that particular gig, or whether he had yet to make his onstage debut with the group.)

2) And here's where the above quotes come in, specifically Jarrett's "If we wanted to swing, we could / If we didn’t, we didn’t" credo, and Motian's "fun," "open" and "free" characterizations: There's something about the broadness of this band's aesthetic that, at this exact point in my listening life, appeals to me immensely.

More on that second point:

When I was first really getting my head around jazz, my primary reference point was Blue Note. I still consider the label's early-to-mid-’60s output to be my personal gold standard for what jazz can achieve. To me, the Blue Note aesthetic is inseparable from a certain kind of purity. Rudy Van Gelder's impeccably clean, vibrant recordings; the stark personnel listings on the back of each record, with each musician typically listed as playing a single instrument, the one he had mastered. Yes, you had your brilliant multi-instrumentalists such as Eric Dolphy and Sam Rivers in the mix, but mostly you had your one-ax champs, your Joe Hendersons and Lee Morgans and Jackie McLeans and Elvin Joneses and Larry Youngs and Bobby Hutchersons and Tony Williamses. No fucking around; no dabbling; these guys just played what they played. And even when the context is freer and more exploratory, such as on Williams's Life Time album, there's a certain kind of focus to these sessions that I found and still find immensely attractive.

It's hard to overstate just how greatly Jarrett's American Quartet, and the trio that preceded it, diverges from the purist Blue Note aesthetic. This is a band that throws that kind of focus out the window in favor of something more mongrel, more open-ended, more porous. You could invoke Motian's descriptor, "fun," here, but that seems to indicate some sort of value judgment. Better to just point out the American Quartet's wild stylistic swings, Jarrett's staunch commitment to multi-instrumentalism during these years, the random percussionists thrown into the mix, the hippie-ish insanity of it all, the overall, yes, raw-commodity-dom of the enterprise. It's such a blender of an aesthetic, and if you're going into the work of the American Quartet or the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio expecting simple Blue Note–ism—three or four dudes playing one role apiece and just getting down to business—you're going to be extremely frustrated by this band.

To get into this music, you have to throw all those expectations out the window. No two pieces on Hamburg ’72, for instance, really sound anything like one another; as with the Quartet, there is no definitive performance by this trio—or rather the most un–"jazz combo"–ish performances could be considered just as definitive as the more straightforward ones where everyone plays their "proper" role. There's the polite, Bill Evans Trio–y "Rainbow"; "Everything That Lives Laments," a two-minute interlude from The Mourning of a Star that's expanded here into a near-ten-minute patchouli texture-quest with Jarrett spending a good deal of the running time on flute; the frantic, scampering, and, yes, suitably Ornette-ish "Piece for Ornette," a chance for all three musicians to really unleash, with Jarrett playing exclusively soprano sax; the super bluesy "Take Me Back," a gloriously infectious piece with a poppy turnaround that, like many of the great early-’70s Jarrett themes, reminds me a whole lot of the contemporary Steely Dan output (I highly recommend watching the video of this performance); and so forth.

That kind of variety was in evidence from the get-go. Life Between the Exit Signs, the recorded debut of the Jarrett/Haden/Motian team-up, is a fascinatingly eclectic piano-trio album that convincingly reconciles Bill Evans with Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, and also advances its own unique concepts. (For example, I've never heard any other piano-trio piece that sounds anything like "Church Dreams.") It's also obvious, here and on the later Somewhere Before and The Mourning of a Star—both of which run the gamut from thorny free jazz to covers of songs by the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell—that Jarrett was soaking up bandleading influences from his successive employers Charles Lloyd (note Keith's already-rampant multi-instrumentalism in this great extended performance—he's reaching inside the piano one minute, picking up the soprano sax the next; in this sense the American Quartet and the Jarrett/Haden/Motian trio are direct extensions of this Lloyd quartet) and Miles Davis, both of whom built their careers on the idea that populist and experimental impulses shouldn't have to be mutually exclusive, that a set of jazz can veer wildly between crowd-pleasing and self-indulgent modes. (For context, consider that Jarrett was a member of Lloyd's band when he recorded Life Between the Exit Signs and Somewhere Before, and a member of Davis's when he made Mourning, Birth—home of the outrageously funky "Mortgage on My Soul"—and El Juicio.) So you put all these influences together, the Lloyd and the Miles and the Evans and the Bley and the Dylan and the aforementioned Ornette, and it's only natural that you'd end up with an aesthetic as fun and free and borderless and anti-purist as the one documented on these releases.

If Hamburg ’72—and if you enjoy that release, you really want to hunt down the uncut bootleg version (see here, for example) of the same show, which contains about twice as much material—represents the live peak of the 1972 Keith Jarrett Experience, so to speak, Expectations, recorded two months before, represents the studio peak. In some ways, Expectations might be my single favorite Keith Jarrett album, at least of the ones I've explored so far. What this album does is take the eclecticism described above and turbocharges it, studio-izes it, adding extra strings, brass and guitar (on this album, the American Quartet is really a quintet, since guitarist Sam Brown is a full-on featured member of the core band). Expectations is the ultimate anti–Blue Note jazz album, a sprawling beast of a thing that explodes with poppy melody, gritty expressionism and just a general overflow of ideas. Nearly every track presents a different approach to the Jarrett aesthetic. You have your Steely Dan–meets-opening-credits-theme soul-pop groovers, such as "The Magician in You" and the aforementioned "Take Me Back." You have your shaggy, celebratory Ornette homages like "The Circular Letter (For J.K.)" and "Roussilion," the latter of which shows off just how deadly the American Quartet could sound when it stripped down to its "central" elements and simply burned. You have your 17-minute odyssey, "Nomads," which elongates and expands the "Take Me Back" aesthetic into a borderline psych-prog zone. And you have your orchestral, melody-drunk bliss-outs such as "Expectations" and closing track "There Is a Road (God's River)," the latter of which breaks out into a drummerless, down-home Jarrett/Haden/Brown jam that's one of the most outrageously joyful musical episodes I've ever heard, on a jazz record or otherwise.

Again, in setting Expectations and these other Jarrett records against the ’60s Blue Notes I learned to love as a younger listener, I'm not indicating some sort of hierarchy or value judgment. What I'm mainly trying to convey is how expansive jazz is, that it can contain all these different flavors of greatness. During my hard-core Blue Note years, I'm pretty sure I would've dismissed Hamburg ’72, Expectations and other Jarrett releases from this period as unfocused ("Put down that soprano sax, dammit!" "Why are you all playing steel drums?" "Give me some jazz, not vampy pop!"), maybe even pandering. Now, though, I'm in more of a tear-down-the-walls phase. I still want my music undiluted, but that's not the same as wanting it segregated, with the "straight-ahead" over here, the "free" over here, the soul off in one corner, the rock and pop in another. If it's all flooding over you in a single experience, if an artist wants to serve you sushi and rice and beans on the same plate, there's profundity in that, too.

Obviously, and especially in light of Jarrett's career trajectory, leading up to the seemingly more conservative Standards Trio (I say "seemingly" because I haven't yet delved deeply enough into this body of work to feel comfortable categorizing it, and I know that this group has ventured into plenty of experimental areas over the years), the eclecticism displayed on these ’67–’72 recordings was about capturing a moment in time, about, as Jarrett suggests in his invocation of "that revolution period" or Motian in his mention of "the influence of the times," taking the temperature both of the jazz scene and the music scene as a whole. Just like Miles, Jarrett was at this point both an insular and confident bandleader and one obsessed with currency. The result was a true Woodstockian jazz, born of and tied to its age. It wasn't better or worse than the classic Blue Note stuff; it was simply other. And right now I'm loving it both for what it is (wide-eyed, unfettered) and isn't (severe, walled-off from pop). Can't wait to really put the later American Quartet recordings under the magnifying glass and see how they fit into this whole, neverending discussion.


Unknown said...

Hank, did you ever end up delving deeper in to the Standards Trio stuff? Recently i finally got round to exploring the pre Expectations trio stuff and got the urge to dip in to the Standards trio again but for the life of me it still doesn't do anything for me. Not bad, but really flavourless to my ears. Leaves me cold. It's hard to quantify sometimes what makes one trio playing standards more 'interesting' than another trio. Very subjective i guess. I can listen to the lesser celebrated late Bud Powell recordings all day for example. Still, I feel like one day the Standards Trio will click for me.

Unknown said...

Aaaaaand i get the Standards Trio now. I think the key for me was listening to their music as it's own thing as opposed to being a 'jazz piano trio' if that makes sense. Also, although i always thought of their albums as being very samey, some definitely have a bit more pop than others. YMMV but i recommend Still Live.